Northern France, between the Ile de France and the Belgian frontier, consists of the old provinces of Picardy, Artois and Flanders, now included within the two administrative regions of Picardy and Nord- Pas-de-Calais.
In the center of the area there are some of the finest French cathedrals, in the north there is France's largest industrial region, and in the west, along the shores of the Channel and the North Sea, there are stretches of beautiful coastal scenery and many attractive bathing resorts.The old province of Picardy, on the northern fringe of the Paris basin, with Amiens as its capital, corresponds broadly to the present-day département of Somme and parts of Pas-de-Calais, Oise and Aisne. It consists of a chalk plateau 100-200 m/325- 650ft above sea level covered by a fertile layer of loam and traversed in the west by the Somme and in the east by the Oise but otherwise little broken up by rivers. It is predominantly an agricultural region, growing wheat, sugar-beet and textile plants. The damp oceanic climate has favored the development of pastoral farming (cheese production) over much of Picardy and the adjoining district of Thiérache to the east. Apart from agriculture, a major contribution to the economy is made by the textile industry.Artois corresponds broadly to the département of Pas-de-Calais, with Arras as its chief town, and, with the exception of the marshland east of Calais, forms the northern part of the chalk plateau of northern France. In addition to wheat, oats, sugar-beet and textile plants the crops include hops and tobacco. Stock-farming is also of importance to the area. In northeastern Artois, roughly between Douai and Béthune, is the northern French coalfield, which brought great prosperity to the area, particularly in the late 19th C. Since the mid 1960s, however, the mining industry has been in steady decline, and the output of coal is now little more than 10% of the output of the early 60s. Special support has, therefore, been given to the local textile industry.French Flanders, the southern part of the old province of Flanders, most of which is in Belgium, corresponds to the Nord département (chief town Lille). Most of it is completely flat and intensively cultivated. The real Flanders is the eastern part of the area with its Flemish-style towns and villages, in which the older inhabitants mostly still speak Flemish, while the eastern part has closer affinities to the predominantly Belgian district of Hainaut or Hainault. Central Flanders, south of Lille, includes part of the northern French coalfield, and is more industrialized than Artois. Flanders is famed for its linen and cotton. Here, as in Picardy and Artois, an extensive network of canals facilitates the transport of goods.Artois, which from 863 belonged to the County of Flanders, was brought under the authority of the French crown by Philippe Auguste towards the end of the 12th C., together with Upper Picardy; Lower Picardy became part of France only in 1369. After a brief return to the County of Flanders the County (from 1297 Duchy) of Artois passed to Burgundy in 1384, followed by Picardy (which had remained French) in 1435; after Charles the Bold's death in 1477, however, both territories reverted to France. In 1493, under the treaty of Senlis, Artois was ceded to Maximilian I of Habsburg. Most of it returned to France in 1659, under the treaty of the Pyrenees; the rest followed in 1678, under the treaty of Nijmegen.There are facilities for a great variety of sports, including riding, tennis and golf; a network of footpaths and tracks offers ample scope for walkers and cyclists; and boats can be hired at many places on the Somme, Marne, Oise and Aisne. All kinds of water sports can be practiced on the rivers and on the coast. There are a number of nature and leisure parks, for example the "Domaine des Iles" leisure park at Ham and a country park at Ermenonville with a zoo and Wild West shows.A popular attraction is the underground town (ninth- 14th C.) in the Grottes de Naours, between Amiens and Doullens.The battlefields of the First World War on the Somme draw many visitors.
Bergues (pop. 4,207), surrounded by a deep moat and 17th C. walls, is a little town of very Flemish character. It has two town gates, the Porte de Cassel on the south side and the Couronne d'Hondschoote, dating from the 17th C. In the east of the town are the remains of the abbey of St- Winoc (a monumental gateway and two towers of the 18th C.). The 54 m/177ft high watch tower is a reconstruction of the original tower, destroyed in 1944, one of the finest in France.
The Municipal Museum, housed in the old Mont-de-Piété (municipal pawnshop), contains paintings by Flemish and French masters and a fine collection of 16th and 17th C. drawings.
13km/8mi east is Hondschoote, once a center of the worsted industry, which has a Renaissance Town Hall and a mill (the Nordmolen) which is believed to date from the 12th C.
St Omer, France
St Omer (pop. 16,595), formerly belonging to the County of Flanders, lies in Artois, between Calais and Lille. The town grew up around a Benedictine monastery founded in the seventh century. In the west of the town, on Place du Maréchal-Foch, is the modern Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), which also houses the Municipal Theater.
Abbey of St Bertin
On the east of the town are the ruins of the abbey of St-Bertin, founded in 1640. Northeast of the Town Hall is the church of St-Sépulcre (13th-14th century).
Museum of Natural History
To the south are the Henri-Depuis Museum of Natural History and the former cathedral of Notre- Dame (13th-15th C.), with a 50 m/165ft high tower, a fine south doorway and a richly decorated interior; in the church is the tomb of St Omer.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Northeast of Notre-Dame is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with prehistoric and Roman remains, weapons, medieval objets d'art, faience, furniture, Flemish tapestries and a fine collection of pictures.
Address: 14 rue Carnot, F-62520 St-Omer, France
Opening hours: Closed: Mon, Tue
Always closed on: New Year's Day (Jan 1), 1945 Victory Day (May 8), May Day / Labor Day (May 1), Assumption Day - Christian (Aug 15), All Saints' Day - Christian (Nov 1), Remembrance Day / 1918 Armistice Day (Nov 11), Christmas - Christian (Dec 25), Pentecost Monday (Whit Monday) - Christian, Ascension Thursday - Christian
Disability Access: Partial facilities for persons with disabilities.
Helfaut - La Coupole
La Coupole was built in 1943-44 by the Nazis as the base and launch against London during World War II. The enormous dome of concrete was constructed above the site to protect it. In 1987, it was transformed into a place of education and remembrance. In early 1997, the Historic Centre of War and Rockets was linked to La Coupole.
The industrial town of Valenciennes (pop. 42,343), once famed as a lace-making center, lies in the center of a coalfield near the Belgian frontier. It was the birthplace of the painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).
Musée des Beaux-Arts (Notre Dame du St Cordon)
Its main features of interest are the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with a fine collection of Flemish, Dutch, Italian and French paintings, the neo-Romanesque pilgrimage church of Notre Dame du St Cordon (1852-1865) and the church of St-Géry, built in 1225 but altered in later centuries.
13km/8mi north of Valenciennes is the old fortified town of Condé-sur- l'Escaut, with a castle built in 1410.The site of the town has had military importance since even Roman times. Located at the confluence of two rivers provided the name from a Celtic word meaning "confluence".
Cambrai (pop. 34,993), on the right bank of the canalized Escaut (Scheldt), was the home of the fine fabric known as cambric, first made here in the 15th C.The central feature of the town is the spacious Place Aristide- Briand, with the massive neo-classical Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall, 19th C.). A little to the west is the 18th C. church of St-Géry, with a 76 m/250ft high tower, which has a Baroque rood screen (1632) and an "Entombment" by Rubens. Opposite the church is the former Archbishop's Palace, with a fine Renaissance doorway (1620).Southeast of this is the Beffroi (15th and 18th C.), the belfry of a church which has since been demolished. The Municipal Museum contains a variety of material, including archeological finds from the area and an interesting collection of pictures from the 16th to 20th C.Farther south is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (18th C.; rennovated in 1859), with a fine Baroque interior. It contains the tomb of the theologian and writer Fénelon (1651-1715), with a monument by David d'Angers (1826), and other tombs, and also a number of pictures. Opposite it, to the west, is the fine Baroque facade of the Chapelle du Grand Séminaire (1692), which belonged to a Jesuit college. Other features of interest are a number of handsome old half-timbered houses like the Maison Espagnole, remains of earlier fortifications (Porte de Paris, 1390), two town gates and the 16th C. Citadel.
Montreuil (pop. 2,960), on a hill above the river Canche, is still surrounded by its 17th C. fortifications, designed by Vauban. The Citadel dates from the 16th C. (view). The former collegiate church of St-Saulve (11th and 12th C.) has some beautiful capitals and paintings (18th C.). The chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu, built in the Flamboyant style, is richly furnished. On the opposite bank of the Canche stands the former Carthusian priory of Notre-Dame-des-Prés (1314), restored by Viollet-le-Duc in 1870.
The little town of Cassel (pop. 2,300), beautifully situated on a hill, has preserved many old burghers' houses (16th, 17th and 18th C.). In the Hôtel de la Noble Cour (16th-17th C.) is a historical museum. There are panoramic views from the Jardin Public. A walk up Mont Cassel, with its restored 18th C. wooden windmill and fine view, will be found rewarding.Within Cassel there is also an 18th C windmill.
Cassel Carnival is an annual day-long carnival, France's most famous and takes place on Easter Monday. Events appeal to the whole family.
Tourcoing (pop. 91,800) is a rapidly developing industrial town near the Belgian frontier. Along with Roubaix and other industrial towns it is part of a conurbation around Lille with a population of around 300,000.The city of Tourcoing is home to a fine arts museum, several theatres, and a multi-media library.
Northeast of Lille, near the Belgian frontier, is the large industrial city of Roubaix (pop. 95,900), the main center of the textile industry in northern France. The Gothic church of St- Martin dates from the 16th C. A popular attraction for visitors is the large and beautiful Parc de Barbieux.
Bavay (pop. 4,400), east of Valenciennes, has remains of the Romn town of Bagacum (mid A.D. second C). The site was excavated from 1942 onwards and finds are displayed in the Musée Archéologique.
Felleries - Moulin des Bois Jolis
The Museum of Fine Wood Felleries is a two-wheel water-driven flour mill. It houses items made from turned wood and photographic documents of life from 1880 to 1900.
Le Cateau, France
Le Cateau (pop. 7,453) was the birthplace of the painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The Matisse Museum in the Town Hall has works by him and by contemporary artists. Also of interest are the church of St-Martin (1635) and the Archbishop's Palace.
Le Quesnoy, France
Le Quesnoy (pop. 4,917) has well preserved 17th C fortifications designed by Vauban, now surrounded by public gardens.2km/1.5mi east is the fortified castle of Potelle (15th C).
Le Touquet, France
Le Touquet (pop. 5,315) is one of the most fashionable resorts on the "Opal Coast", founded in the 19th century. Situated in a well-wooded area, it has a wide range of sports facilities and an attractive seafront promenade.
International Music Festival
This annual two-week festival takes place in early to mid-August in Le Touquet. Concerts range from classical to jazz.
Hundreds of motorbikes convene on this small town every year in late February for a day of riding through the dunes and over the beaches.